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Anger

3 Things to Do the Minute You’re Overwhelmed With Anger

What can we do in those immediate instances when we feel triggered?

Key points

  • Taking a few minutes to take deep breaths or go for a walk can help the calm the nervous system when you feel angry.
  • Describing your internal state, without rationalizing or explaining those feelings, can help mitigate anger.
  • The intensity or degree of an angry response can sometimes be exacerbated by events in your past.

Anger is an important, often misunderstood emotion. I recently wrote about why we could all learn to be more accepting and curious about our anger rather than judging or suppressing it. Burying our anger can bend us out of shape and lead us to suffer both mentally and physically. On the other hand, lashing out and letting our anger spill out all over the place is not exactly an ideal alternative.

Understanding and moving through our anger is something that can take time, patience, and introspection. But what can we do in those immediate instances when we feel triggered? How can we calm ourselves down without glossing over what we’re feeling? Here are three tips I give everyone, from couples to parents, to help them handle heated moments of frustration, annoyance, or outright rage.

1. Take five.

While our immediate, most intense emotional reactions are often beyond our control, our physical actions are always in our power. We do ourselves a great service by simply putting time and space between our instant angry response and whatever action we take.

If we notice ourselves feeling really stirred up in an interaction, the first thing to do is breathe. Take deep breaths and count to 10. When possible, let the other person know you need a minute. Get outside. Take a walk. Basically, whatever works for you to calm down your nervous system is worth your time.

Of course, this may all sound much easier said than done. Yet, finding just five minutes to turn our attention inward, focusing on ourselves and our own emotional state, is often the healthiest first step to processing our anger. It allows us to clear our head, make sense of what we're mad at, and decide how we want to respond.

The goal of taking five is not to ruminate on specific details of what happened and rile ourselves up. Instead, we should practice self-kindness by giving ourselves what we need to calm down and reconnect to who we are. We can then evaluate the situation from a more open, less reactive headspace.

2. Name it to tame it.

This may sound too simple to be useful, but the small act of acknowledging when our anger shows up can help us get through it in a big way. The idea is not to get bogged down in the reasons we’re mad but simply to notice and name whatever we’re feeling.

Interpersonal neurobiologist Dr. Daniel Siegel recommends the exercise “name it to tame it” as a means to make sense of our emotions and find balance. The idea is to describe our internal state without feeling the need to rationalize or explain it. The process promotes what Siegel calls “integration” by strengthening our brain’s language capabilities and connecting them to the spontaneous, raw emotions in the limbic area of our brain.

In addition to calming our brain, naming a feeling helps give us the space we need to sit back and be curious, rather than getting carried away by a wave of emotion. Our ability to identify our reactions allows us to be honest and self-aware, while also making a more conscious choice about how we want to react.

3. Recognize your triggers.

We all have certain things that set us off; maybe it’s a specific type of criticism, a condescending tone, or a feeling of being ignored or overlooked. If we get really heated or flooded with emotion, it can be a sign that something older and deeper is being tapped into.

Of course, we may not recognize exactly what’s happening right in the present moment. We may not realize that our boss’s belittling language is digging into a trench of humiliation we felt as a shy child. We may not understand that our own child’s tantrum is triggering the same helplessness we felt when we were young and in pain.

When we feel triggered, we don’t need to instantly identify the exact event from our personal history that may be being stirred. What we can do, however, is recognize that the intensity or degree of our anger may be being exacerbated by our past. By taking a curious approach in these moments, we can write down or take note of what we think may have set us off. Was it a specific thing someone said? A way we were looked at? A tone?

What words can we associate with the angering event? In her book Hold Me Tight, emotionally focused therapist Dr. Sue Johnson poses a list of terms that describe the deeper emotions being awoken in us when we feel triggered. Many people find certain feeling words resonate with them far more than others. This can help them identify the primal feelings that are underlying their oversized reactions.

As we make a conscious effort to understand our triggers, we get better at noticing when and why they come up. For example, we may notice we feel especially provoked any time our partner nags us to complete a practical task. At first, this may feel like a rational reaction to an annoying behavior. Yet, why does this specific behavior set us off more than others? Is there a meaning we assign to it? For instance, we may have thoughts like: “She thinks I’m an idiot. Why does she remind me all the time to take out the trash like I’m a child?" or “He never gives me a moment’s peace. Why is he so intrusive?”

These types of thoughts and our angry feelings around them can be clues to certain triggers we have inside us that are quick to surface. Maybe we had a parent who was dominating, intrusive, or critical, and as a result, we’re extra sensitive to instruction. Whatever the reason may be, recognizing that we're being triggered on a deeper level can help us peel away the past from the present.

Of course, we’re all going to experience maddening events many times in our lives, but we can still take hold of those reactions that are elevated by our past. This can help us make sense of our experience and have more power over our reactions. For instance, in the case of being triggered by a partner’s nagging, we might ask them directly to try to trust us more. We can even share the reason it causes us distress to hear their repeated reminders.

The goal of all three of these practices is to give ourselves the time and space we need to process and make sense of our anger without falling victim to it. By taking a mindful, compassionate, and curious approach to our emotional reactions, we get to know ourselves on a deeper level. We get clues into our past, tools to center us in the present, and better techniques for handling our anger throughout our lives whenever and wherever it may arise.

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